Response: September 2015 Issue

And a Time to Speak

The loss of lives in South Carolina causes grief, but not surprise, in a country in desperate need of honest reflection and changed systems.

And a Time to Speak
People pray outside Morris Brown Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., after the deadly shooting June 17 at “Mother Emanuel."

In the days after the attack during the Wednesday night Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, United Methodist Women joined many others in grieving, calling for prayers and reaching out to one another and the communities closely connected to Mother Emmanuel. We offered support to colleagues and those we know with personal ties to the families of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, the Rev. Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, Susie Jackson and members of the congregation. United Methodist Women's national president Yvette Richards and I both sent messages of condolence to our sister Shirley Cason Reed, president of the Women's Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

We also knew that more would be needed.

As I watched a seemingly endless series of editorials, statements and comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds responding to the shooting, I noticed something: I and my Anglo sisters, many of whom are deeply committed to equality, racial justice and breaking down unjust systems, spoke of our shock at this heinous attack. In contrast, the articles, comments and editorials from my African American sisters and other people of color didn't focus on shock. Grief, yes. Anger, yes. Pain of scars that go deep and have years of history, yes. But not shock. I suspect that the truth is that African Americans in the United States are not shocked when acts of violence are committed against families and communities of color.

Changing the status quo

In fact, sisters and brothers, how can we white members of the community still be shocked?

When you look at the statistics, you see that violence committed against African Americans and other people of color is a regular occurrence in the United States. The time and place and number of people killed or injured is not predictable, but the fact is that violence against people of color is committed regularly and persistently. And the violence will continue unless we create systemic changes in our culture and societal norms.

Perhaps in the case of Mother Emanuel, some of us are shocked because we identify strongly with the victims — churchgoing, Bible-studying women and men. However, I think that our shock may also reflect an inability to look reality squarely in the face. We must see that other people of color who are victims of violence don't deserve to be killed either — not during a drive by or in an encounter with law enforcement or by someone on neighborhood watch.

Sainthood is not a requirement for any of us — black, white, young, old, able-bodied, smart-mouthed, sullen or cooperative — to have human rights, created-by-God rights. But perhaps honoring the inalienable human rights of the people of Mother Emanuel can keep us from being distracted by the when and how of the incident and refocus our energies on how to build meaningful cross-racial solidarity. How can we create breakthrough moments for United Methodist Women members and other persons of goodwill to amp up our level of advocacy and action for racial justice?

Similarly, the statistics about black fatalities, increasing levels of poverty and failing schools that have been set up by decades of red-lining and reliance on property taxes to fund education should not shock us. These statistics are persistent and are evident across the country. They are also evidence of systemic racism. Systemic racism is racial bias across institutions and society. It is the cumulative and compounded effects of systems that are set up to work for white people, who are still the majority and whose experience is treated as the "norm," and that disadvantage people of color.

Looking beyond ourselves

Systemic racism does not mean that individual participants in the system necessarily have personal feelings of racial hatred or bias, or even that they do not do their best to be evenhanded within the established frameworks. Coming to terms with systemic racism means understanding that the system itself is designed in a way that generates disparate results just by following the rules. Acknowledging that these inequities are the result of systemic racism must catalyze us to take action.

United Methodist Women has a history of taking faith-filled, bold and justice-seeking positions based on a clear-eyed look at the conditions of women, children and youth here in the United States and around the world. It is time for us to take a look at the statistics on violence, poverty and race in the United States and break ourselves of the illusion that the system is basically fair, that it is working pretty well and that it usually rewards effort and merit evenhandedly to all.

Throughout the next several years as we work on our new set of priority issues, we will have the chance to take a look at the reality of the massive incarceration of mostly poor people of color in the United States, the increase of wealth inequality, maternal health outcomes and issues of environmental justice. In each focus area, race is an aspect that must be addressed.

From years of work we know that race, gender and class have overlapping and cumulative negative impacts in each of our new priority areas. We must diligently study so that we are not shocked by the fact that current systems are not working well and are not affecting and benefiting all equally. We must allow this clear-eyed analysis of current realities to galvanize us for action that is needed now, just as our foremothers did when they drafted the Charter for Racial Justice and mobilized the whole church to adopt it. We must speak up and take risks for the needed change of laws and of hearts today as our foremothers did through the Anti-Lynching Societies and the work against the internment of Japanese people and so much more.

Like our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel who opened the doors of the church to the community almost immediately after the attack, we must be engaged in opening our own doors. We need to open the doors to deeper understanding that will lead to personal and institutional critique and change, open the doors to new strategies of engagement in our work for justice and open the doors to work with other churches and with organizations outside the church to create a "new normal" that fully honors the dignity and rights of African Americans and all people of color.

Harriett Jane Olson is general secretary and chief executive officer of United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 8/30/2015 12:00:00 AM